(1/24/2010) — Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s trip to Pakistan this weekend has in many ways been public relations disaster, and I think it is fair to say that he came away empty-handed with regard to his chief policy goals in Islamabad. Getting Pakistan right is key to President Barack Obama’s policy of escalating the Afghanistan War, and judging by Gates’s visit to Islamabad, Obama is in worse shape on the AfPak front than he is even in Massachusetts. Since he has bet so heavily on Afghanistan and Pakistan, this rocky road could be momentous for his presidency.
In one of a series of gaffes, Gates seemed to admit in a television interview that the private security firm, Blackwater, was active in Pakistan.
The Pakistani public has a widespread resentment against US incursions against the country’s sovereignty (64% say the US is a danger to the country’s stability). But it also has a sort of paranoid obsession with Blackwater, which they suspect of covert operations to disrupt security in the country (i.e. they blame Blackwater for bombings that Americans see as the work of the Taliban). Thus, Gates’s statement produced a media frenzy. (Jeremy Scahill has alleged in The Nation that Blackwater is in fact in Pakistan in a support role to CIA drone attacks in the country’s mountainous Northwest on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets).
Dawn, a relatively pro-Western English daily, quoted the exchange, saying Gates was asked by the interviewer on a private television station,
‘ "And I want to talk, of course, about another issue that has come up again and again about the private security companies that have been operating in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan. . . Xe International, formerly known as Blackwater and Dyncorp. Under what rules are they operating here in Pakistan?"
‘ "Well, they’re operating as individual companies here in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq because there are theatres of war involving the United States."
The Urdu press concluded that he had admitted Blackwater is active on Pakistani soil, while noting denials from the US embassy in Islamabad that that was what Gates had meant. The News, the mainstream English-language sister of Jang, was also insistent that Gates had let the cat out of the bag.
Gates had one strike against him, since he came to Pakistan from India. Moreover while in New Delhi he clearly was a traveling salesman for the US war materiel industries, who would like to pick up some of the $60 billion India is planning to spend on weapons in the next few years. During the Cold War, the US had mainly supplied Pakistan’s military, and had been lukewarm to India, which Washington felt tilted toward Moscow. The current shift of US strategy to wooing India to offset growing Chinese power in Asia is taken by some Pakistanis as a demotion.
Then, he encouraged a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, including, according to the Times of London, possibly in training Afghan police. Pakistan considers Afghanistan its sphere of influence and the last thing it wants is a role for Indian security forces in training (and perhaps shaping the loyalty) of Afghan police. Germany is currently in charge of the police training program, but India is afraid that in the next few years NATO will depart, and that Pakistan will then redeploy its Taliban allies to capture the country for Islamabad’s purposes. India is also concerned about significant Chinese investments, as in a big copper mine, in Afghanistan. So New Delhi is considering the police training mission.
In addition, Gates had praised Indian restraint in the face of the fall, 2008 attack on Mumbai (Bombay) by the Pakistani terrorist organization, the Lashkar-i Tayyiba [Army of the Good]. He warned the Pakistani leadership that India’s forbearance could not be taken for granted the next time. That is a fair point, but it is not the sort of thing you say publicly on your way to Islamabad from Delhi if you want to be received as an honest broker. Pakistanis feel that India has inflicted many provocations on them, too, not least of which was the Indian security forces’ often brutal repression in Muslim-majority Kashmir, where thousands have died since 1989 in a separatist movement with which Pakistanis deeply sympathize. (Pakistani guerrilla groups also did routinely slip into Indian Kashmir in support of local separatists).
Prominent members of the Pakistani Senate denounced Gates for setting up Pakistan as a sort of patsy and hostage to communal violence in India, and of fomenting a Washington-New Delhi ‘conspiracy’ against Islamabad. What if some Indian terrorist group carried out an attack in India? wasn’t Gates giving New Delhi carte blanche, they asked, to blame Pakistan for it even in the absence of any evidence, and then to launch a war of aggression on Pakistan with the incident as a pretext?
The LAT said that "Gates, on the first day of a visit here, urged government officials to build on their offensives against militants . . ."
In fact, Gates was careful not to over-emphasize such demands, but there was a general public perception that he was doing so. The editorials in Urdu newspapers on Jan. 23, which the USG Open Source Center analyzed, complained bitterly about this further demand. Express sniffed that the US should establish security in Afghanistan and then everything would settle down in Pakistan’s northwest. Khabrain rather cleverly pointed out that Pakistan has concentrated on limited territory in fighting its Taliban, which is wiser than the US policy of opening several fronts at once and getting bogged down.
Jang, which is mildly anti-American, said,
Describing Robert Gates’ pro-Indian statements irresponsible, the editorial says: "It is believed that the political and military leaderships of Pakistan, with one voice, have made it clear to Gates and the titanic-size delegation accompanying him that in the present circumstances, it is not possible for Pakistan to accede to the persistent US demands of ‘do more’ and to further expand military operations in the tribal areas, because Pakistan not only has to secure the areas that it has taken control of from the militants but also has to strengthen and stabilize its position there."
Then the Pakistani military spokesman came out and flatly told Gates that the Swat and South Waziristan campaigns were it for now. The BBC reports, ‘Maj Gen Abbas, head of public relations for the Pakistan army, told the BBC: "We are not going to conduct any major new operations against the militants over the next 12 months. . . The Pakistan army is overstretched and it is not in a position to open any new fronts. Obviously, we will continue our present operations in Waziristan and Swat." ‘
To be fair, the Pakistani military committed tens of thousands of troops to these two campaigns, in Swat and South Waziristan, and is in fact attempting to garrison the captured areas so as to prevent the return of the Pakistani Taliban. In the past two years, the Pakistani army has lost over 2,000 soldiers in such fighting against Taliban in the Northwest, a little less than half the troops the US lost in its 6-year Iraq War.
The Pakistani military campaigns of the past year, however, have not targeted those radical groups most active in cross-border raids into Afghanistan– the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar’s Old Taliban, the Haqqani Network of Siraj Haqqani in North Waziristan, or whatever cells exist in Pakistan of the largely Afghanistan-based Hizb-i Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbadin Hikmatyar. Washington worries that the effectiveness of its own troop escalation in Afghanistan will be blunted if these three continue to have havens on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. And, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani worries that the US offensive in Afghanistan will push thousands radicals over the border into Pakistan, further destabilizing the country’s northwest.
Gates made a clumsy attempt to mollify Pakistani public opinion over the very unpopular US drone strikes on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban cells in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, by offering the Pakistani military 12 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones of its own. But the Pakistani military pointed out that the outdated RQ-7 Shadow UAV’s on offer were unarmed and merely for aerial reconnaissance, and maintained that Pakistan’s arsenal already contained such drones.
Gates addressed the Pakistani cadets at the National Defense University, attempting to emphasize that he wanted more of these future officers to study in the US, and that Pakistan is in the driver’s seat with regard to the anti-Taliban counter-insurgency campaign. Its message was largely missed in the civilian Urdu press.
Does it matter? One sometimes see Americans dismiss Pakistan as "small" or "unimportant." Think again. Pakistan is the world’s sixth-largest country by population (170 million), just after Brazil (200 million). It is as big as California, Oregon and Washington state rolled together. Pakistan’s 550,000-man military is among the best-trained and best-equipped in the global South. Pakistan has within it a middle class with a Western-style education and way of life (automobiles, access to internet and international media) of some 37 million — roughly 5 million families. (Pakistan has over 5 million automobiles now and is an emerging auto producer and market, with auto production at 16 percent of its manufacturing sector). If we go by local purchasing power, it is the world’s 27th largest economy. It is a nuclear power with a sophisticated if small scientific establishment, and produced a Nobelist in physics.
Gates went to Pakistan to emphasize to Islamabad that the US was not again going to abandon it and Afghanistan, as it had in the past. Pakistan, he wanted to say, is now a very long-term ally of Washington. He hoped for cooperation against the Haqqani, Taliban and Hizb-i Islami guerrillas. He wanted to allay conspiracy theories about US mercenary armies crawling over Pakistan, occasionally blowing things up (and then blaming the explosions on Pakistanis) in order to destabilize the country and manipulate its policies.
The message his mission inadvertently sent was that the US is now increasingly tilting to India and wants to put it in charge of Afghanistan security; that Pakistan is isolated; that he is pressuring Pakistan to take on further counter-insurgency operations against Taliban in the Northwest, which the country flatly lacks the resources to do; and that Pakistani conspiracy theories about Blackwater were perfectly correct and he had admitted it.
In baseball terms, Gates struck out. In cricket terms, Gates was out in the most embarrassing way a batsman can be out, that is, leg before wicket.